Revisiting PeerJ

A few months ago as part of a discussion on open peer review, I described the early stages of planning for a new type of journal, called PeerJ. Last month on February 12 PeerJ launched with its first 30 articles. By last week, the journal had published 53 articles. There are a number of remarkable attributes of the journal so far, so in this post I want to look at what PeerJ is actually doing, and some lessons that academic libraries can take away–particularly for those who are getting into publishing.

What PeerJ is Doing

On the opening day blog post (since there are no editorials or issues in PeerJ, communication from the editors has to be done via blog post 1), the PeerJ team outlined their mission under four headings: to make their content open and help to make that standard practice, to practice constant innovation, to “serve academia”, and to make this happen at minimal cost to researchers and no cost to the public. The list of advisory board and academic editors is impressive–it is global and diverse, and includes some big names and Nobel laureates. To someone judging the quality of the work likely to be published, this is a good indication. The members of PeerJ range in disciplines, with the majority in Molecular Biology. To submit and/or publish work requires a fee, but there is a free plan that allows one pre-print to be posted on the forthcoming PeerJ PrePrints.

PeerJ’s publication methods are based on PLoS ONE, which publishes articles based on subjective scientific and methodological soundness rather with no emphasis placed on subjective measures of novelty or interest (see more on this). Like all peer-reviewed journals, articles are sent to an academic editor in the field, who then sends the article to peer reviewers. Everything is kept confidential until the article actually is published, but authors are free to talk about their work in other venues like blogs.

Look and Feel
PeerJ on an iPhone size screen

PeerJ on an iPhone size screen

There are several striking dissimilarities between PeerJ and standard academic journals. The home page of the journal emphasizes striking visuals and is responsive to devices, so the large image scales to a small screen for easy reading. The “timeline” display emphasizes new and interesting content. 2 The code they used to make this all happen is available openly on the PeerJ Github account. The design of the page reflects best practices for non-profit web design, as described by the non-profit social media guide Nonprofit Tech 2.0. The page tells a story, makes it easy to get updates, works on all devices, and integrates social media. The design of the page has changed iteratively even in the first month to reflect the realities of what was actually being published and how people were accessing it. 3 PDFs of articles were designed to be readable on screens, especially tablets, so rather than trying to fit as much text as possible on one page as many PDFs are designed, they have single columns with left margins, fewer words per line, and references hyperlinked in the text. 4

How Open Peer Review Works

One of the most notable features of PeerJ is open peer review. This is not mandatory, but approximately half the reviewers and authors have chosen to participate. 5 This article is an example of open peer review in practice. You can read the original article, the (in this case anonymous) reviewer’s comments, the editors comments and the author’s rebuttal letter. Anyone who has submitted an article to a peer reviewed journal before will recognize this structure, but if you have not, this might be an exciting glimpse of something you have never seen before. As a non-scientist, I personally find this more useful as a didactic tool to show the peer review process in action, but I can imagine how helpful it would be to see this process for articles about areas of library science in which I am knowledgeable.

With only 53 articles and in existence for such a short time, it is difficult to measure what impact open peer review has on articles, or to generalize about which authors and reviewers choose an open process. So far, however, PeerJ reports that several authors have been very positive about their experience publishing with the journal. The speed of review is very fast, and reviewers have been constructive and kind in their language. One author goes into more detail in his original post, “One of the reviewers even signed his real name. Now, I’m not totally sure why they were so nice to me. They were obvious experts in the system that I studied …. But they were nice, which was refreshing and encouraging.” He also points out that the exciting thing about PeerJ for him is that all it requires are projects that were technically well-executed and carefully described, so that this encourages publication of negative or unexpected results, thus avoiding the file drawer effect.6

This last point is perhaps the most important to note. We often talk of peer-reviewed articles as being particularly significant and “high-impact.” But in the case of PeerJ, the impact is not necessarily due to the results of the research or the type of research, but that it was well done. One great example of this is the article “Significant Changes in the Skin Microbiome Mediated by the Sport of Roller Derby”. 7 This was a study about the transfer of bacteria during roller derby matches, and the study was able to prove its hypothesis that contact sports are a good environment in which to study movements of bacteria among people. The (very humorous) review history indicates that the reviewers were positive about the article, and felt that it had promise for setting a research paradigm. (Incidentally, one of the reviewers remained anonymous , since he/she felt that this could “[free] junior researchers to openly and honestly critique works by senior researchers in their field,” and signed the letter “Diligent but human postdoc reviewer”.) This article was published the beginning of March, and already has 2,307 unique visits to the page, and has been shared widely on social media. We can assume that one of the motivations for sharing this article was the potential for roller derby jokes or similar, but will this ultimately make the article’s long term impact stronger? This will be something to watch.

What Can Academic Libraries Learn?

A recent article In the Library With the Lead Pipe discussed the open ethos in two library publications, In the Library With the Lead Pipe and Code4Lib Journal. 8 This article concluded that more LIS publications need to open the peer review process, though the publications mentioned are not peer reviewed in the traditional sense. There are very few, if any, open peer reviewed publications in the nature of PeerJ outside of the sciences. Could libraries or library-related publications match this process? Would they want to?

I think we can learn a few things from PeerJ. First, the rapid publication cycle means that more work is getting published more quickly. This is partly because they have so many reviewers and so any one reviewer isn’t overburdened–and due to their membership model, it is in the best financial interests of potential future authors to be current reviewers. As In the Library With the Lead Pipe points out that a central academic library journal, College & Research Libraries, is now open access and early content is available as a pre-print, the pre-prints reflect content that will be published in some cases well over a year from now. A year is a long time to wait, particularly for work that looks at current technology. Information Technology in Libraries (ITAL), the LITA journal is also open access and provides pre-prints as well–but this page appears to be out of date.

Another thing we can learn is making reading easier and more convenient while still maintaining a professional appearance and clean visuals. Blogs like ACRL Tech Connect and In the Library with the Lead Pipe deliver quality content fairly quickly, but look like blogs. Journals like the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication have a faster turnaround time for review and publication (though still could take several months), but even this online journal is geared for a print world. Viewing the article requires downloading a PDF with text presented in two columns–hardly the ideal online reading experience. In these cases, the publication is somewhat at the mercy of the platform (WordPress in the former, BePress Digital Commons in the latter), but as libraries become publishers, they will have to develop platforms that meet the needs of modern researchers.

A question put to the ACRL Tech Connect contributors about preferred reading methods for articles suggests that there is no one right answer, and so the safest course is to release content in a variety of formats or make it flexible enough for readers to transform to a preferred format. A new journal to watch is Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, which will use the Digital Commons platform but present content in innovative ways. 9 Any libraries starting new journals or working with their campuses to create new journals should be aware of who their readers are and make sure that the solutions they choose work for those readers.

 

 

  1. “The Launch of PeerJ – PeerJ Blog.” Accessed February 19, 2013. http://blog.peerj.com/post/42920112598/launch-of-peerj.
  2. “Some of the Innovations of the PeerJ Publication Platform – PeerJ Blog.” Accessed February 19, 2013. http://blog.peerj.com/post/42920094844/peerj-functionality.
  3. http://blog.peerj.com/post/45264465544/evolution-of-timeline-design-at-peerj
  4. “The Thinking Behind the Design of PeerJ’s PDFs.” Accessed March 18, 2013. http://blog.peerj.com/post/43558508113/the-thinking-behind-the-design-of-peerjs-pdfs.
  5. http://blog.peerj.com/post/43139131280/the-reception-to-peerjs-open-peer-review
  6. “PeerJ Delivers: The Review Process.” Accessed March 18, 2013. http://edaphics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/peerj-delivers-review-process.html.
  7. Meadow, James F., Ashley C. Bateman, Keith M. Herkert, Timothy K. O’Connor, and Jessica L. Green. “Significant Changes in the Skin Microbiome Mediated by the Sport of Roller Derby.” PeerJ 1 (March 12, 2013): e53. doi:10.7717/peerj.53.
  8. Ford, Emily, and Carol Bean. “Open Ethos Publishing at Code4Lib Journal and In the Library with the Lead Pipe.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (December 12, 2012). http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/open-ethos-publishing/.
  9. Personal communication with Matthew Reidsma, March 19, 2013.

One Comment on “Revisiting PeerJ”

  1. Thanks for great review Margaret (I am the Publisher and Co-Founder of PeerJ). If any librarians reading this post are interested in getting their library involved by purchasing PeerJ memberships for their faculty, they can can find a contact form at: https://peerj.com/pricing/institutions/

    Pete


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